Perhaps slavery would have been abolished in the Americas nearly a century earlier, had the Colonists lost the war of Independence?

Most wars are about economic matters, and it’s difficult to over-state how central slavery was to the economy of early America. Yet in 1772, the Somersett Case brought before the King’s Bench which concerned a slave brought to England by a Customs official, and concluded that chattel slavery was unsupported by common law. “The air of England“, as was argued by Somersett’s council “is too pure for a slave to breathe“. Hundreds of American slaves attempted to make the passage to England and freedom following this ruling. Just four years later, the Colonists declared independence. I do not believe these facts are unrelated. George Washington was a major slave-owner as was Thomas Jefferson. Both men appeared to know the institution was wrong, but felt unable to do all that much about it.

The war of Independence was, as the US Civil War a century later, at least in part about slavery. Washington resisted free blacks in the Continental army in which around 500 served for fear of the principle it would set to slaves. America’s first Emancipation proclamation (in reality, a fairly desperate last throw of the dice by someone hoping a slave rebellion would carry the day for the Crown) was issued by the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore in 1775. Thousands of freed slaves fought for the British side against the colonists. While the Dunmore proclamation may have hastened the end of slavery in the American colonies had the British won, the abolition of slave trade (1806) and the abolition of slavery in the British Empire (1833) may have had a much harder run. The abolitionists would have faced a greater array of more powerful economic interests.

It’s a comforting Narrative for the Englishman therefore that slavery was abolished in the British Empire before it was in most other European and American powers, and that having done so, the might of the Royal Navy was deployed in suppressing the trade. This does not absolve the UK, or the British Empire of the stain of slavery. While the British may have been the first power to end slavery, while the slave trade was legal, and for some time while it wasn’t, the British economy was enormously boosted by the trade in humans, which ceased when it was becoming less economically viable. The British and Portuguese were by far the biggest slave traders for over 200 years.

Around 11m (estimates vary hugely) Africans were forcibly removed over the 300 years of the triangular Atlantic trading route, of which slaves from West Africa to the Americas formed the “middle passage”. This devastated the societies and economies of the entire continent, and left much of Africa, even into the interior, a low-trust society to this day. Unlike the Black Death in Western Europe, an equivalent tragedy, which left the remaining people richer, the slave trade left societies in which people could not invest in land or technology because of the ever-present risk of kidnap. There is evidence that many tribes actually regressed, abandoning technologies such as crop-rotation and the plough in response to this onslaught. Much of West Africa is corrupt, violent and poor as a direct legacy of the Slave trade.

The societies which escaped the worst excesses colonialism and slavery, notably Namibia and Botswana, are doing much better than the rest of Africa to this day probably because their tribal institutions and societies weren’t ruptured by grotesque incentives of the slave trade. The south was poorer and remains poorer than the rest of the USA because of slavery and Jim Crow. The “special institution” has devastated Africa and left America uncomfortable in its soul following centuries of Race-laws, hate, fear and torture in the Southern states. It’s a special kind of evil that poisoned everything it touched and does so to this day.

And that’s before we consider the individual human cost. Millions of lives lost to sickness, violence, warfare and simply being thrown overboard should the middle passage prove longer than counted for in supplies. Think about that for a minute.

This may not have happened on the Tecora, on the voyage depicted in Amistad, but it did happen.

It’s not an exaggeration to conclude the industrial trade in Humans, at which the British once excelled, is a historic crime of an equivalent magnitude to the Holocaust. This is why I do not get angry when politicians talk about reparations for slavery. I am rich and free and many Africans poor, in part because of the enduring legacy of slavery.

Why am I writing this now? I read ’12 years a slave’ by Solomon Northup the movie of which is to be released in the UK shortly. The more I read, the more fascinating I find the entire grotesque, horrifying business. It’s a short book, and one I urge you to read before you go see the movie.

12 replies
  1. Raedwald
    Raedwald says:

    And how many of those 11m (or 14m) slaves bought and transported by British and Portuguese ships were actually enslaved by Europeans? Well, the estimates are a few thousand to ten thousand or so. Until we had a prophylactic against Malaria, steam gunboats and breech-loading rifles, from 1870 or so onwards, we hardly set foot ashore, let alone penetrated into the interior.

    Africans had been enslaving each-other since the days of the pharaohs; until the 14th century, for about 4,000 years, their market had been Egypt and North Africa. Some estimates put the number of Africans enslaved during those four millennia as dwarfing the 11m or 14m bought by Europeans between 1350 and 1850. The point is, we didn't invent African slave-making – we just encouraged the trade by buying slaves at top-dollar. And they didn't stop in 1850 either; Africans have continued to enslave and sell each-other in substantial numbers to this day.

    The transatlantic slave trade was just a 500 year long interlude in a practice some 4,700 years old. How much responsibility do I feel for their behaviour? None. Nada, Zilch. So count me out of the compensation payments, please.

  2. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    "Africans have been enslaving each other for centuries". Yes, but we industrialised it, made it random, and exported the slaves. The scale & brutality of the atlantic slave trade dwarfed anything before or since. The effect on Africa was vast. Yes some africans were culpable. But it's like drugs. You can't stop supply when there's a market.

  3. Tom
    Tom says:

    An idle observation – the crews of the slave ships had less chance of making the journey alive than the cargo…

    A large proportion of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" were ex-slave ship crew who thought that a better/safer way of life…

    None of the above justifies slavery but the whole subject is relativism on a stick exploited for domestic political point scoring and that sucks.

    I wonder how many activists who go on about this subject have spent much (any?) time in West/Central Africa? Blaming what goes on down there on "slavery" is just credulous undiluted BS. Where "we" might be culpable is in our indulgence (for cash) of the brutish kleptomaniacs at all levels that infest Africa – but that's a different story.

    Radders could add a new Guardian Reader Offer "Holidays in Port Harcourt" – complimentary flack jacket, Kevlar hat and ransom bond.

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Every civilisation from the Akkadians of 2023 BC to the Empires of the Anicent near East throu to the caliphs ted of a North Africa in early medieval times tto the European empires and up to modern day Africa have participated in slavery. Slavery isn't exclusive to Europeans, as many believe.

    Does this mean slavery is/was right? No.

    If you want to give reparations for slavery to make a self-hating wimpy white like you feel better about himself then go for it, but do to try and enforce your self-inflicted sense of hatred on other people.

    The Romans ensalved British people too. We are all descended from slave masters and slaves.

    And you say that since a British people did it on such a large scale that it warrants reparations, what you're effectively saying is that it's one rule for Britain and one rule for everyone else.

  5. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    The UK could send all the money in the world to Africa and. people like you would still be saying 'this doesn't absolve the UK, or the British Empire of the stain of slavery.'

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    At least I'm not the type of loser who feels responsible for things that I didn't even have a hand in.

    I'd rather be called a mong by self-hating shits like you then feel guilty about thighs when guilt is not due.

    Talking bullshit seems to be something you excel in. I agree with you on economics but everything else, meh.

  7. Malcolm Bracken
    Malcolm Bracken says:

    I don't "feel guilty", I'm going no farther than not getting angry about it, because reparations for slavery is not ridiculous. As it happens, I agree with you. I don't support reparations. I do support aid. Read what I say, and don't extrapolate.

  8. Tim Newman
    Tim Newman says:

    You could see the aid budget to that part of the world as part of a restitution.

    That would please estate agents in Dubai and London and Mercedes dealerships in Lagos. Otherwise, I can't think of a single benefit of doing so.

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    You're going to accuse someone else of extrapolating? Rich coming from the person who accuses people of hating 'wogs' just because they don't want Britain transformed into a second Africa.

    Would you ever accuse a Palestinian of hating Jews or complaining about Jews if one of them says that they served up with immigration? Doubt it.

  10. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    My ancestors were starved out of Ireland by their English landlords. So my people fled to the United States where they prospered in a way they never could have in Ireland, and I am glad of it. I wonder how many modern blacks would wish that their ancestors had never been brought to the UK or US and that lived today in Africa instead of these places. I suspect it would be very few. Certainly those countries benefited by slavery
    and all people living in them today, black or white are the beneficiaries of that sad legacy.


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